Picasso: The homecoming

The pristine white cube of the Standard Bank Gallery displays the Picasso and Africa exhibition like a series of artefacts inside the corporate miniopolis in downtown Johannesburg.

The exhibition is a grand affair, comprising more than 84 paintings, drawings and sculptures by Pablo Picasso, and 29 African sculptures from South African collections similar to those Picasso owned or might have been influenced by. The African sculptures are housed in the central vault, bathed in an ethereal light transfused from the glass dome above. The Picassos line the walls on the outer perimeter.

Viewers expecting a mini retrospective of the most famous and influential artist of the 20th century will be disappointed. The focus of the exhibition is the relationship between African art and Picasso’s work, and the majority of works on show are obscure, although there are a few images from his more famous cubist and later phases.

Of course, with 50 000 artworks to his name, any exhibition of Picasso will leave some viewers disappointed. But the works on display are visually striking in relation to their African counterparts, and pretty comprehensive considering that much of the work has become too fragile to transport.

Picasso was significantly inspired by African art, declaring that “The masks, they were not sculptures like the others. Not at all. They were magical things … intercessors … against everything; against unknown, menacing spirits”, after seeing an exhibition of African art in 1907. This experience inspired him to repaint the faces of his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, one of the most significant artworks of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it is not on display as it is in a fragile state; it is represented by Picasso’s sketches for the work.

His African phase is widely regarded as initiating cubism, the most radical move away from the naturalism that prevailed in European art up until the late 19th century. Although there is an African phase to Picasso’s output, just prior to Cubism, his flirtation with African art continued throughout his life — thus the more than 60 works directly influenced by African art date from 1906 to 1972. The remaining works serve to display the metamorphosis and fluidity of Picasso’s work.

That many of the images are so unfamiliar also combats the sense of “having seen it all before” in books and reproductions. The African quality of Picasso’s work is striking and extends beyond the similarities between what is on display. Painter with Palette and Easel and Head invoke images of Zulu shields. Portrait of a Girl reminds one of the wire knick-knacks available at South Africa’s traffic lights. The series of 11 lithographs, Bull, traces the development from expressionism to cross-hatching to cubism and ultimately back to San rock art.

It is thus the very sternness of the curatorial vision that both limits the scope and strengthens the exhibition’s prerogative — the dialogue between Picasso and African art. Curators Laurence Madeline, leading curator at the Picasso Museum in Paris, and Marilyn Martin, director of art collections at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town, have called their approach “scientific”.

Madeline and Martin’s preface to the accompanying catalogue summarises the African characteristics of Picasso’s works as simplifying form and colour, transforming the individual into an idol and combining different techniques and materials into a single work.

The catalogue is extensive, with essays, an anthology, biography, bibliography, colour reproductions of all the works on show and images of other works not on show but relevant to the essays.

Madeline provides a concise exploration of the history of Picasso’s African influence as primarily from an Africa in his imagination, including various commentators’ views. She also draws pointed parallels between Picasso’s work and specific African styles. His rigid and extremely stylised faces can be compared to Fang masks and Dogon statuettes. The grooves on his faces and bodies and the use of earth colours recall Kota and Hongwe reliquaries and Songye masks. The essay is supported by the lengthy anthology, compiled by Madeline, who also writes a second essay on the broader influences on Picasso.

Complementing Madeline’s insights, Germany-based author and curator Peter Stepan’s essay explores what might have constituted Picasso’s private collection of African art — which is, unfortunately, now mostly dispersed.

The inclusion of Léopold Sédar Senghor’s opening address to the 1972 Picasso exhibition in Dakar contrasts with the “scientific” tone of the current exhibition. Senghor talks about the magic and poetic in Picasso’s art in relation to his African inspiration. He accentuates Picasso rejecting “art as imitation, and [replacing] it with that of art as invention”.

This ties in neatly with Martin’s comparison of Aina Onabolu and Picasso in the next essay. Onabolu was an African contemporary of Picasso’s who turned from African aesthetics to a more European classical approach. Although the opposite of what Picasso was doing, they were, in their own contexts, seeking art as innovation.

Martin offers a succinct history of the perception of African art — from the times when it was considered to be craft, through the colonial views of the exotic, to the eventual conception of African modernism being dynamic and complex. She raises the contemporary issues of authenticity, the criticism of grand-scale African exhibitions often not making it to Africa, and conflating the African continent to a single entity. It is on this basis that the staging of classical African works of art as equals alongside Picasso’s works, in Africa, is a significant coup for the continent — even though the exhibition regards the African continent as a single entity.

Along with Dr Mongane Wally Serote’s short tribute to the exhibition, Martin also completes the triangle: If Africa influenced Picasso, how has Picasso influenced Africa’s contemporary artists? They cite Gerard Sekoto, Dumile Feni, Irma Stern, Walter Battiss and more. Although all of these artists have recently enjoyed major retrospectives of their own, it is disappointing not to see a selection of these works on display.

Picasso and Africa shows at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until March 19, and at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town from April 13 to May 21

On the sidelines

Two fringe exhibitions complete Picasso’s influence on Africa.

  • Cape Town artists have been invited to submit 2D works inspired by Pablo Picasso or Africa to be displayed at the Alliance Français du Cap and Alliance Français de Mitchells Plain from April 6 to May 19. The closing date for the submissions is April 3. Tel: (021) 423 5699
  • Johannesburg’s events take on a more cross-media approach. An African Night with Picasso at the Drill Hall on March 9 features performers, fashion designers, visual artists, musicians and poets presenting pieces about how they relate to Picasso. A range of other events are still to be confirmed. Website: www.ifas.org.za
  • There is also a national educational programme, including a book, workshops, a schools’ art competition, a writing competition and design workshops. Website: www.standardbankgallery.co.za
  • Look out for details about a Picasso and Africa writing competition sponsored by Standard Bank, due to close at the end of May. For more information, e-mail [email protected]

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